French minds turn to scandal
Like all great nations, the French have acquired a series of stereotypes that have a greater or lesser amount of observable truth going for them. One of these has been around since the nineteenth century, which is that its politicians all have semi-official mistresses. They are chosen from the ranks of the “grandes horizontals,” which reveals a Paris, for all its present economic woes, that still appears to be rich.
Much of that is due to the literature of the age. The best-known French novelists of the nineteenth century, Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola, both put courtesans at the center of their fiction; women whose beauty and wit were their living. Zola’s Nana (1880), based on the beautiful Blanche d’Antigny (among others), saw its heroine die of smallpox; her face ravaged by pustules. Dumas also killed off his heroine painfully in La Dame aux Camelias (1848; and the source for Verdi’s La Traviata). But Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami (1885) has the handsome hero, Georges Duroy, rise through society to a position of power and wealth aided by affairs with the wives of powerful men — a kind of male “grand horizontal.” Though Zola and Dumas both gave a conventionally grisly ending to their sinful heroines, they clearly sympathized with them. Maupassant was famously “immoral” for using a prostitute in his Boule de Suif (1880) to show that she is superior in character to the disapproving bourgeois men and women who surround her.
In Britain, Russia and the U.S., sexuality was generally disguised in nineteenth century literature. Thus, France’s reputation as a country at ease with male and female sexuality passed into the shorthand image of the country — a place where “Oo la la!” and “cherchez la femme!” were thought to be the most common sayings, and the Folies Bergeres was the leading Parisian theater.
This image has been supported by the view that the French are indifferent to the sexual shenanigans of their leaders, regarding these either as private matters or as so commonplace that it would be tedious to take an interest in them. But, in our own times, sexual explicitness and overt displays of sexuality in the formerly prudish U.S. and Britain have damaged the French sexual exceptionalism. Now the sophisticated motto “qui se soucie?” (“Who cares?”) has suffered as well. The French president has a mistress, and the French, it seems, do care.
President Francois Hollande, 59, has never married. He had a decades-long relationship with the Socialist politician Segolene Royale, with whom he had four children. Since 2007, his partner, the journalist Valerie Trierweiler, has been regarded as the first lady, with an office in the Elysee Palace and a staff of five. Last weekend, as the coverage developed about an affair between Hollande and the actor Julie Gayet, Trierweiler was reported in the hospital, suffering from exhaustion. Now Trierweiler is asking that the situation be “clarified.”
The affair was first reported by Closer — the British-inspired French magazine owned by Silvio Berlusconi’s Italian publishing group Mondadori. In 2012, Closer published topless photographs of Britain’s Duchess of Cambridge, the wife of Prince William. It is acquiring a reputation, enviable in its world, of deeply embarrassing the mighty.
When the pictures of the Duchess were published, I wrote here that “she has been made, much against her and her husband’s will, an overtly sexual being, the image of whose largely naked body is now the subject for men’s envious or derisive conversations worldwide.” Neither Hollande nor his lovers have had to face this fate, but his ratings are the lowest ever for a French president. Now he has to face questions about his private life just as he attempts to change his country’s economic course while facing charges of incompetence.
The mainstream press does not avoid coverage of scandal stories. The center-left Le Monde made Hollande’s affair its top story on Sunday and reported that the leader of the opposition party “Union pour un Mouvement Populaire” called it “disastrous for the image of the President.” Center-right Figaro played the story lower and sneered at the British for their fascination, but then proceeded to carry three more hefty pieces about it.
Much of the “French don’t care” phenomenon was a function of powerful politicians able to make it clear that their private life wasn’t anyone’s business but their own. The press agreed — in part for fear of being prosecuted under strong privacy laws. But by its restlessly transparent nature, the Internet is not cowed, and the new gossip magazines in France have scandal at the center of their business model.
The web and gossip complex have redefined political coverage in France. President Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande’s predecessor, had a similarly active sex life and — unlike Hollande — seemed at times to encourage gossip coverage (though, like Hollande, he threatened legal action and appealed to powerful media friends when he thought it went too far).
Now French leaders are in the same position as leaders in the U.S. and Britain. They are forced to respond to and counter the news media and the opposition and are unable to count on a hands-off press or a high-minded or indifferent population.
I liked the French media when they were uninterested in these matters. I think the U.S. and especially Britain’s pursuit of such stories, which are heavily freighted with contemptuous stereotypes, is a shame. But such preferences are now irrelevant. The logic of societies that depend on a culture of consumption is that everything that can be produced can be consumed. Celebrity gossip, produced in great quantities, is also consumed in great quantities. Somewhere in our brains there is a bloated compartment that forever snacks on the infidelities, protestations and embarrassments of others.
PHOTO: French President Francois Hollande (L) and his companion Valerie Trierweiler arrive for a state dinner at the Elysee Palace in Paris May 7, 2013. REUTERS/Thibault Camus/Pool